Imagine the disappointment, the complete let down that the children of Israel experience as they find themselves in the wilderness after their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians. I mean think of all those events. God had heard the cries of his people and he wreaked havoc on the Egyptians, plague after plague feel upon them until finally on that first Passover the will and desire of the Egyptians were broken. He then leads them through the Red Sea on dry ground and swallows up Pharaoh and all his host in the waters. He is present with them day and night, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. He has even rained manna down from above. But now, now they begin to long for water, for that most basic necessity of life (Exodus 17:1-7). They look all around and there is nothing to drink, nothing to parch their dry and cracked lips. Now that they have left Egypt in the dust they begin to wonder if this is all there is? Will they die here in the wilderness? Will they die of thirst? They’re thinking to themselves, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Suffering strikes the Christian like the beating rays of the sun on a desert wanderer who has gone too long without water. We can claim victory in Christ and favor before God greater than the angels themselves and yet we can become so acquainted with the taste of our own tears that we may doubt the wisdom and provision of God. How many have wondered where God is when their relationships fall apart, where love that once burned so bright seems now so distant? How many have experienced victory over a great illness and sang the praises of God only to fall under the affliction of a much greater cancer? How many in our midst have rejoiced to be found only to wonder if they are lost and alone in their grief and hardship?
Suffering leads to a scary place for the believer, it leads us to that dark place of doubt. Doubt where we begin to wonder about the promises of God, where we begin to think that maybe what we once thought was so wonderful isn’t so great, we might want to look elsewhere for hope and security in this life. The Israelites had been carried by God out of the oppression in Egypt and now as they struggle as they fear death for lack of water they doubt such deliverance. They actually ask, “Why, why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
Notice what God does. As Moses turns to him in frustration looking for help in dealing with these people God has Moses take up his staff the same staff he used to strike the Nile and stand before a rock at mount Horeb. And when they gather all around him he strikes the rock with the staff and water comes flowing out.
Life comes flowing from the rock, hope and sustenance will be provided yet again by God in the midst of the wilderness.
Notice that it is despite their unworthiness, despite their doubt, despite their complaining, despite their hearts that so easily turn from his care – and yet still he gives life to his children and not death.
Down at the Getty Museum there is a painting of this scene by Jacob Jordaens. The first time I saw it I was stunned by it. They have it hanging quite high so you have to look up to see it above another work of art but when you see it you can’t help but be moved by the scene. In fact it is the very movement of the painting that makes it so captivating. In the middle is the rock with Moses standing by its side, staff still in hand, and flowing out of it is a stream of water. But on all sides leaning and pushing in almost like a desperate mob are all sorts of people young and old and animals, camels and cattle and sheep, all longing for that desperate drink of water, that one taste of life in the wilderness of death.
That painting is helpful to fess up to the desperate realities of the wilderness. Without the water provided by God they would not have lived, they could not have endured. And so it is in our own wilderness. We often think of the wilderness in Scripture as a place of temptation and testing, but perhaps the real drive of the wilderness is to bring us again and again to the necessity of God’s grace if we are going to endure. We cannot do it, we cannot make it on our own, we must have the interference of God, his gracious acts if we are to survive the wilderness and make it to the Promised Land.
And so he does. The great Rock from which we drink deep the living waters is Christ himself. He is the one who provides for us in our wilderness, he will not allow us to fade away and die out before we reach the goal. Christ is the one and only one who gives to you life and salvation despite your sin and shame, despite your doubts and fears and confusion. He gives himself, his righteousness, his eternal life, his promise of resurrection itself; he gives it all to you.
And so this day we lean in to drink the living water, reminded again that you will enter the Promised Land, for the Lord himself has not forgotten or forsaken you – he is here, here to give you life.